Ohio State men's basketball: Thomas finds support and desire to make his dreams come true
Standout didn’t have a storybook life growing up
Deshaun Thomas chose to attend Ohio State in large part because of the family atmosphere Thad Matta promotes.
Deshaun Thomas remembers that spring day his senior year of high school. He was staying after classes, doing homework, when the school principal, Mary Keefer, entered the room and said, “Good news.”
Thomas had been waiting anxiously for it. In four years at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., he had become not only the best basketball player in the state but an honor-roll student.
All that was left for him to do to receive a college scholarship was receive a qualifying score on his college entrance exam. Keefer had the score in her hand.
“She told me I passed,” Thomas said, “and I said, ‘I’m on my way.’ I kind of shed a tear, because my dreams were coming true. It was a wonderful feeling.”
The dreams started on an outdoor court near the small home where Thomas grew up with his grandmother, Lettie Mae Jackson, his three siblings, an assortment of other relatives and, off and on, his mother. He saw his father only occasionally.
On Aug. 27, 1996, Hillary Clinton, then first lady of the United States, said in a speech to promote her book that “it takes a village” to raise a child. Two days after that, a child who would come to embody that philosophy turned 5. Thomas might have celebrated by doing what he loved most: going to the park to get up some shots.
“A lot of kids fail in that situation without their parents, or when they don’t have a good life when they’re young,” he said. “I was a kid who just loved the game of basketball, and I knew from watching NBA games that it can take you to great places and make you a great person. So I just kept my head in it, and my grandma always kept after me to do the right thing, to trust in God, and the sky was the limit.”
He’s still reaching.
Thomas, a 6-foot-7, 215-pound junior at Ohio State, has gone from being compared as an eighth-grader to LeBron James, to being named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball as a high-school senior and being voted a preseason All-American this season. He is the Big Ten’s leading scorer with an average of 19.9 points. He could be playing in the NBA next season.
“It’d be a big blessing, and life-changing. I’d be really, really proud of him,” said Thomas’ oldest sister, Missy, her voice quavering. “But I’m proud of him already.”
Missy, 12 years older than her brother, described herself as Deshaun’s “protector” growing up.
“That was my instinct,” she said. “My mom wasn’t around, we lived with my grandma with a lot of other people, and I was mainly just focused on my little brother. That was my mom’s baby, and I was his big sister. I used to always worry about him when I had to go to school.”
When Missy was out of high school and had her own apartment, Deshaun, then in elementary school, went to live with her, and his village began to expand.
“I had a friend named Tyrell Tubbs ... (who) used to watch me on the basketball courts in the park,” Deshaun said. “He brought me to the (YMCA) to play Y ball.”
James Whitaker, the program director, “took me under his wing as a father,” Thomas said, “taught me the right way, and taught me how to play the game of basketball.”
And so the legend began to grow.
“I was always the biggest person when I was younger,” Thomas said. “The older guys never used to let me play with them. But I just kept playing and got better, and as I got better, they picked me.”
By the time he entered middle school, Thomas was well-known among basketball aficionados in his hometown. He was involved in the Scholastic Athletic Consortium, a program for academically at-risk children administered by Gym Rats Basketball at the Spiece Fieldhouse. The organization was founded in 1992 by Bill Hensley to provide, through basketball, a mentoring program for youth.
“My father introduced me to Deshaun when he was 11 or 12,” said Todd Hensley, now the director of Gym Rats. “He said he was going to be the next major player out of Indiana.
“I started training Deshaun some when he was 13, and when my father passed (in 2007), I became heavily involved in Deshaun’s life — not just with basketball but from the mentoring side. His dad was around, and he had interaction with him, but I was able to help him get to school when he couldn’t get there, and I put him around a number of people at the fieldhouse that are all positive role models. I kind of took him under my wing as more or less one of my kids.”
Deshaun’s mother, Delores Jackson, was in and out of his life until he was in high school. Asked if their mother would agree to an interview, Missy Jackson said she does not like to discuss her past but that she has turned her life around.
“She’s living on her own now,” Missy said. “She’s more involved with her kids now, and her grandkids, and she’s not on the streets.”
Thomas’ father, Leroy, said he worked so much in a job assisting developmentally disabled children that he was seldom around for his son. They spent some weekends together, but Deshaun said that at one point, he didn’t see his father for three years.
“It was kind of hurtful when I was young, but I understand now. He’s tried the best he can,” said Thomas, who had to miss the birth of his own son, Deshaun Jr., last March because Ohio State was in Boston playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Leroy said he appreciates Hensley and others who mentored his son. But it was Leroy who, in 2006, recommended that Deshaun enroll at Bishop Luers instead of a public high school.
“It was a Christian school,” Leroy said, “and they offered the best education.”
At the time, though, Deshaun was living with Missy outside the Luers district, so he had to return to his grandmother’s home. His stay was brief.
“There had to be like eight or nine of us (grandchildren) in what was a small house,” Thomas said. “We were bad, too, and she was always yelling at us. She always went out for a walk to try to clear her mind. So I figured I’d give her some space.”
Lawrence Barnett was a friend from the YMCA, a year older and a basketball and football player at Luers (he’s a defensive back at Indiana now). Thomas said Barnett suggested he move in with his family.
“You get in high school, you think you’re a little grown,” Thomas said. “I needed discipline, and Lawrence’s parents gave me that, staying on top of my homework, making sure I was on time and doing the right things.”
Thomas lived there for two years.
“He was a good kid,” said Barnett’s father, John. “He was a little shy, but he knew how to talk to people, knew how to act. There was not much to do with his discipline, to tell you the truth. He wasn’t arrogant or anything like that. I just wanted him to get more focused with his studies.”
Basketball never was an issue — Thomas had 27 points and 15 rebounds in his first game for Luers. How well he adjusted to the regimen of a private school would be the only issue for the next four years.
“He came to me when he had been barely here and said, ‘School is very hard for me,’ ” said Keefer, the Luers principal. “And I said, ‘Deshaun, if you do what we ask you to do, and work hard, you will make it. We will help you.’ ”
Like many freshmen, Thomas was “rather clueless,” Keefer recalled, laughing. “He just didn’t know how we did things around here.”
He had a habit of taking his cellphone to class instead of leaving it in his locker, which resulted in detentions. And there was the time he showed up in shorts, which are not allowed. Keefer drove him home to change into long pants, which he asked her to iron because they were wrinkled.
Nothing caused as big a fuss, though, as when Thomas and a Luers assistant coach drove to Columbus on May 30, 2007, for an unofficial visit to Ohio State.
Buckeyes coach Thad Matta had made his interest in Thomas known since Thomas averaged nearly a quadruple-double for his eighth-grade team. Matta was only too happy to get one of the top high-school freshmen in the country on campus only a few weeks after receiving a commitment from another, Jared Sullinger.
What no one expected was that Thomas would commit to Ohio State, too. But he did, infuriating Indiana fans already smarting from the Buckeyes having reached the NCAA championship game that season thanks to two one-and-done freshmen from Indianapolis, Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr.
Because of the backlash, Thomas publicly backed off his commitment a week later. But he never visited another school.
“My dad and them were saying, ‘Keep your options open.’ People were pulling at me, and that was kind of hard,” Thomas said.
“But when I went back to my grandma, she said, ‘This is about what you want.’ So I thought about what I wanted, and I wanted to be at Ohio State.”
In November 2009, he signed a national letter of intent binding him to the Buckeyes.
“What a lot of people don’t know about Deshaun is, early on, he was pretty insecure, even as gifted an athlete as he was,” Hensley said. “A lot of it had to do with how he grew up. It was important for him to find a place and a coaching staff that would treat him like family, that would look out for him in a number of ways, and he felt confident about that” with Matta and his staff.
“Deshaun never wanted to open (his recruitment) up ... and it really helped him be able to focus on the academic piece that he needed to nail down.”
During the next three years, as he helped Luers win two state championships and scored 3,018 points, third-most in the history of Indiana high-school basketball, Thomas hammered his books.
“It was just a matter of applying myself,” he said. “I wasn’t dumb. My freshman and sophomore years, it got a little iffy, but by my junior year and senior year, knowing Ohio State was recruiting me and what it takes to be here, I took charge of it and grew up and got my academics right.”
Those two years, Keefer said, Thomas would spend Wednesday nights and Sundays at Luers for tutoring.
“He had his eye on the prize,” Keefer said.
The third quarter of his senior year, Thomas made the honor roll for the first time. He was so proud that he asked Keefer if it could be announced on the school’s public-address system.
Recently, he received an academic achievement award for the fall semester from the Ohio State athletic council.
“Deshaun has always been gifted when it comes to basketball. I never had a question whether he’d be successful in that part of his life,” Hensley said. “What I was always concerned about, and focused on, was him becoming a productive adult.
“I couldn’t be happier for him. Basketball aside, he has really blossomed into a great young man.”